The Air Force’s X-37B is a Boeing-built unmanned spacecraft that bears a striking resemblance to the old Space Shuttle (despite being significantly smaller). Although the program itself is shrouded in secrecy, its long-term orbital missions often make the headlines, thanks in no small part to the decidedly un-secret sonic booms the platform creates over Florida upon reentry. Publicly, little is known about the X-37B’s mission, capabilities, or internal technology — but it’s certainly caught the attention of near-peer opponents like China, who are already feverishly working on their own equivalent.

Now, according to statements made by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, the branch has an interest in finding ways to connect the X-37B to America’s premier stealth fighter, the F-35. In fact, Goldfein is not the only official talking about connecting the F-35 to the Air Force’s reusable space plane, seemingly confirming SOFREP’s long-running theory that the X-37B is primarily used as a quick-turnaround orbital surveillance and reconnaissance platform.

While stealth gets most of the press, it may be the F-22 and F-35’s data fusion capabilities that really set them apart from the competition. (USAF)

“When you look at something like an X-37 or an F-35 or F-22 … as we refine these connections and we show that level of interoperability that is resilient, redundant and reliable, we will then be able to develop what that means in terms of creating an effect against the adversary,” said Brig. Gen. David Kumashiro, Director of Joint Force Integration for the Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration and Requirements Office.

Officially, the Air Force says the X-37B is used to explore and develop “reusable space vehicle technologies.” Unofficially, it seems likely that the low-orbiting platform sees use as a means of rapid deployment for state-of-the-art intelligence systems. Instead of developing an entire satellite platform, new technologies can be easily and affordably deployed far sooner through a long-term orbiting platform, like the X-37B, that’s capable of returning to earth periodically for refit. This turnaround time allows the U.S. Air Force the ability to add new or even experimental sensors to the platform and gauge their efficacy while collecting real-world data on nation-level opponents at a significantly reduced cost when compared to designing, building, and deploying an entirely new satellite platform.

A secure link between the X-37B in orbit and the F-35 or F-22 could potentially offer an even greater degree of situational awareness than what is already offered from these advanced jets’ onboard suite of systems. And thanks to the rapid equipment deployment time allotted by the X-37B, new systems, specifically designed to benefit pilots, could be easily developed and deployed with minimal cost. Also, if the X-37B is being used as a temporary replacement for a downed or damaged communications satellite, its secure connection with the orbital assets could be relayed to other nearby platforms, keeping even fourth generation fighters in the loop even after an orbital or cyber attack would have compromised elements of America’s satellite infrastructure.

This concept, when considered alongside the Air Force’s plans to bolster F-35 armaments with “arsenal planes,” further demonstrates the Pentagon’s forward looking push for higher speed data transmission between assets in a fight, and a more integrated and networked approach to warfare.